While one can debate the value of An Unexpected Journey as an adaptation of Tolkein’s novel The Hobbit at great length, it is ultimately an entertaining film. I recently realised there are very few truly good fantasy films made; many are entertaining or fun but flawed, but few are unequivocally good. I was thus very surprised at the quality of the first in the three films loosely based on The Hobbit; it was tonally consistent throughout, visually impressive and had a real sense of being a film made with some love and care.
The current vogue in fantasy fiction is in low-fantasy, bleak “subversions” of high fantasy; a rejection of stock in trade creatures and storylines in favour of pseudorealism (at times to the extent of almost offensive stereotype) and pessimism. These can work, for sure, but are by no means the whole extent of fantasy fiction’s potential. High-fantasy, the traditional Dungeons and Dragons style of story of wizards and elves, is becoming less popular after a series of derivative epic novel series sent it on a spiral into cliché and low-quality stuff. As a result, to see An Unexpected Journey completely embrace the setting of one of the primogenitors of high fantasy was refreshing stuff – grim attempts at cynical takes on human nature full of rape and dismemberment were replaced with pastoral idylls, bumbling sorcerors and gruff dwarves. There is much comedy in An Unexpected Journey, but it is not smug, self-aware exchanges of one-liners spat at the camera (as people complained The Avengers was) – instead, it is a very modern sort of visual and character-interaction based humour that better suits an ensemble adventure.
The film itself is about a team coming together and working together, and is as much a fish-out-of-water comedy about a bookish man in a rough-and-ready gang on a quest as any serious epic – it was, in fact, this which was a major cause for concern about the suitability of it for expansion into a more developed story over three films. Yet what the changes do is give a better picture of how mad the entire quest is and give time to make the team seem more relatable. Indeed, the whole idea of a knockabout ensemble story that is not predicated on giving each team member a chance to do their thing, snark at the camera and move on feels very refreshing after that structure being actively rejected in pop culture as a cliché. It shows well that in time, what was once avoided due to overfamiliarity can feel fresh simply as a result of being absent for a period.
Most refreshing of all, however, is that An Unexpected Journey is structurally strong; many action films feel like setpieces interspersed with downtime in an almost gamelike pattern of peaks and troughs – levels and cutscenes. Such structures are not per se bad but can feel lazy and predictable; making a journey narrative actually feel like an ongoing quest requires making those downtimes purposeful and in a sense diegetic. A common cliché about fantasy fiction is that it is walking interspersed with action; the downtime feels dull and unnecessary and the whole returns to the level/cutscene style of very artificial breaks in the action. However, even outside of the big setpiece fights that are undeniably the film’s dramatic climaxes, there is a vital sense of forward movement that ties them together in a way which suits the general tone. Rather than a succession of plans and contingencies doomed to fail in order that the finale be a last-minute showdown against the villain’s true plan, An Unexpected Journey is just that – a journey to a known destination filled with events and discoveries. Again, a display of competence and a plan which is established and well on-track is a pleasing departure from current genre norms; it shows that one can have a straightforward quest narrative that is nevertheless still engaging and exciting.
The last thing of note about An Unexpected Journey is how it handles its fight choreography; the climactic battle against the Goblin King that forms the main action setpiece of the film feels convincing and exciting; it is not, again, a gamelike case of single combats and setpiece attacks but a constantly-moving brawl – framing a climactic fight as a chase not a pitched battle allows for an exciting sequence in constantly-changing surroundings that nevertheless still has a set goal that it moves towards. The entire film is defined by this constant movement and it adds both the required epic scale and range of locales but also helps emphasise the intimacy and cameraderie that is as engaging as the action. There is little sense that any given situation will suit one hero more than any other, or be their moment in the spotlight, because An Unexpected Journey is a true ensemble cast rather than a superhero team.
Ultimately, it remains the fact that An Unexpected Journey is the first in a trilogy; it is an ambitious project to make a short novel into three films via the addition of new material that is tonally consistent with the source and completely integrated into the story and thus realistically one cannot comment on anything other than this one film in isolation. However, as a fantasy film it moves away from the current genre traditions and embraces what had become cliches in a capable fashion. Tolkein claimed to have written The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a kind of mythology – by taking these myths and making a film which is ultimately not so much reverential of the high-fantasy tradition but nostalgic for it, the makers of An Unexpected Journey have set a high bar for the subsequent parts.